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"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
EU / NATO

EU Makes Final Push on Iran Nuclear Deal

The European Union is making one last push to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In a July 26 op-ed in the Financial Times , EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell said that the “space for additional significant compromises has been exhausted.” He has “put on the table a text that addresses, in precise detail, the sanctions lifting as well as the nuclear steps needed to restore” compliance with the JCPOA. “Decisions need to be taken now to seize this unique opportunity to succeed,” he said. Borrell’s warning...

The Last Chance to Restore Compliance with the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal

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Volume 14, Issue 5, July 13, 2022

After a three-month stalemate, indirect talks between the United States and Iran over restoring compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), resumed in Doha June 28. Rather than producing a breakthrough and de-escalating tensions, the two days of talks underscored that the inflexibility of the U.S. and Iranian positions on issues extraneous to the JCPOA continue to jeopardize efforts to restore mutual compliance with the original 2015 nuclear deal.

Given the intransigence on both sides and the growing proliferation risk posed by advances in Iran’s nuclear program, it is increasingly likely that efforts to restore the JCPOA will soon collapse—unless Washington and Tehran are willing to be more creative and flexible in bridging the remaining gaps that stand in the way of an agreement to resurrect the nuclear deal.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell directly emphasized the urgency of the current situation when he tweeted July 5 that “decisions are needed now” if the parties want an agreement to restore the JCPOA. He warned that the political space to revive the nuclear deal “may narrow soon.”

Despite Borrell’s warning, no further talks are scheduled, and the United States and Iran continue to point fingers over who is to blame for the impasse.

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley described the round of negotiations as “a wasted occasion” in a July 5 interview with NPR and noted that Iran came to Doha with added demands that have “nothing to do with the nuclear deal.” According to Malley, the EU, which is mediating between the United States and Iran, “put on the table a very detailed outline of what they think a fair outcome would be” and the United States is “prepared to take that deal,” but Iran “has not said yes.” Malley went on to say the Biden administration assesses that Tehran needs to “come to a conclusion about whether there are now prepared to come back into compliance with the deal.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks in May to Iran’s first international event on privatization. (Photo credit: Iranian government website)

Iran’s attempt to reopen old issues may appear to support the assessment that Tehran is uninterested in a deal or stalling to further build leverage—but this is a tactic Tehran has used in negotiations in the past. Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said July 5 that Tehran is pursuing “no claims that go beyond the JCPOA” and is “determined to seek a good, strong and lasting accord,” suggesting that Iran is still interested in a deal to restore the JCPOA.    

But time is not on Iran’s side if it hopes to string out talks to increase its leverage and extract more from the United States. Nor is it on the side of the Biden administration if it attempts to wait Iran out.

Both Tehran and Washington must seize the moment now to find a creative approach to address the outstanding issues in the talks, namely Iran’s demand to lift sanctions designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization and for guaranteed economic benefits.

Iran’s advancing nuclear program confirms Borrell’s assessment that Washington and Tehran must act with greater urgency to address these issues and restore the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran is closer now to a nuclear bomb than it has been at any point in its history and is subject to the bare minimum of monitoring. At this point, there is no guarantee that the international community could quickly detect an attempt by Iran to amass enough fissile material necessary for a nuclear weapon.

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But even if Iran demonstrates restraint—which it so far has been unwilling to do— and takes no new steps to expand its nuclear activities, the current trajectory of its program and the reduction in monitoring will threaten efforts to restore the JCPOA and increase proliferation risk. If the Biden administration lets the door close on reviving the JCPOA, it has no good alternatives for effectively and verifiably reducing the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

At that point, the best possible outcome would be for the Biden and Raisi administrations to take actions to deescalate tensions and stabilize the current crisis, which would build up time to negotiate an interim deal. Even this approach would be very difficult and time consuming to negotiate, is fraught with risk, and would be subject to spoilers, further highlighting the critical necessity for a last-ditch effort to restore the JCPOA before it is too late.

Breakout on the Brink

Iran’s ongoing and accelerating violations of the JCPOA are heightening proliferation risk and decreasing the window for restoring the nuclear deal. The impacts generally fall into three categories: reduction in breakout time (the time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one bomb), irreversible research and development, and decreased transparency.

The reduction in Iran’s breakout time—from more than 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented to less than 10 days as of early June 2022—poses the most significant short-term proliferation risk. If Tehran decided to dash for a bomb, the 10-day timeframe would allow Iran to attempt to break out between IAEA inspections, which currently occur on roughly a weekly basis, and transfer its weapons-grade uranium to a covert site to complete the weaponization process. Building a bomb would likely take another 1-2 years but that process would be more difficult to detect and disrupt, which is why the United States has historically focused on ensuring that Iran could not quickly produce the nuclear material for a weapon and negotiated limits that produced a breakout time under the JCPOA (12 months for more than a decade) that would create ample time for the international community to respond to any attempt by Iran to move toward a nuclear weapon.

The precipitous drop in breakout since 2019, when Iran began to breach its obligations in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA a year earlier, is due to several factors. Most notably, Iran began ratcheting up enrichment to 60 percent uranium-235 in April 2021, a level just shy of the 90 percent considered weapons-grade, and can now enrich uranium more efficiently than it could in the pre-JCPOA period due to its development, installation, and use of more advanced centrifuge machines.

As of the May 30 IAEA report, Iran had produced an estimated 43.3 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent. Iran claims 60 percent enriched uranium is necessary for research reactor fuel and a future submarine program, but there is no legitimate civil justification for Tehran to be taking this step—no other non-nuclear weapon state enriches to this level. Now, having produced more than 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent, Tehran could use that stockpile of material exclusively as feed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb, or about 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 90 percent.

Iran’s enrichment capacity is also nearly three times what was permitted by the JCPOA, which limited Iran to enriching uranium with 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges and strictly regulated the testing of advanced centrifuge machines. As of the May 30 IAEA report, Iran has installed an additional 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges at its enrichment facility at Natanz, as well as about 1,000 IR-2 centrifuges and about 500 IR-4 centrifuges. Iran also has plans to install 1,000 IR-6 centrifuges, distributed between the Natanz and Fordow sites, about 500 of which were installed as of the May 30 report.

Even more concerning is the fact that Iran notified the IAEA July 9 that a cascade of IR-6 centrifuges installed at Fordow is configured in a way that allows Iran to switch enrichment levels more quickly. While Iran informed the IAEA that the planned enrichment level is 20 percent, that could change if Tehran seeks to build further leverage. That this activity is taking place at Fordow, a facility buried deeply into the mountains near Qom, will likely be even more concerning to U.S. policymakers as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to destroy or damage the site with a conventional military strike.

As a result of these advances, Iran could produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb (25 kilograms of 90-percent enriched uranium) in less than 10 days. The Biden administration confirmed the risk posed by this shortened timeframe when U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley testified May 25 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Iran “could potentially produce enough fuel for a bomb before we can know it, let alone stop it.”

Restoring the JCPOA’s limitations will not push the breakout back to 12 months, as Iran’s irreversible knowledge gains have eroded that timeframe. However, the JCPOA’s limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program will have an immediate impact of increasing the breakout to an estimated six months through at least 2030, alleviating the heightened risk of an undetected breakout and giving the international community adequate time to respond to any move toward a bomb.

While breakout poses the most significant and immediate proliferation risk, it is not currently a driving factor in the Biden administration’s calculations regarding the viability of a restored JCPOA. Nor does Iran’s crossing the threshold of undetectable breakout appear to be spurring any urgency toward reaching an agreement.

In late 2021, undetectable breakout appeared to be a red line for the United States. Now, however, the Biden administration appears willing to tolerate this increased risk level in the short term, or at least as long as restoring the JCPOA remains a viable option. This may be because while breakout can be useful in measuring the time it would take for Iran to produce weapons-grade material, it does have limitations in measuring threat. Breakout relies on worst-case scenario calculations and assumptions, and more importantly, it does not take into account intent. The Biden administration may feel more confident that the risk posed by a short breakout can be managed if they believe that national technical intelligence means would be sure to detect a breakout, even if it occurs between IAEA inspections, and/or they feel confident that Iran has not, and likely will not, decide to build a nuclear weapon. Iran’s continued rhetoric in support of a deal to restore the JCPOA suggests that Tehran still concludes the costs of pursuing nuclear weapons outweigh the benefits.

In the longer term, particularly if restoring the JCPOA is no longer a viable option, such a short breakout could be destabilizing and increase the risk of conflict. A sudden decision by Iran to pursue the bomb, a new government in Israel that views the short breakout time as a more imminent threat, or faulty intelligence assessments could all push the United States to use force. Even if Iran does not undertake new nuclear activities, given the short breakout time, leaders in Washington may assess at some point that military options are the only means to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. While that could increase breakout in the short term, Iran would likely respond, as it has in the past, by ratcheting up its nuclear activities even further. At worst, it could push Tehran to assess that covertly or openly pursuing nuclear weapons is the best option to prevent further attack by the United States or Israel.

Irreversible Research and Development

While the shorter breakout timeline does not appear to be driving the Biden administration’s current calculus regarding the window of opportunity for restoring the JCPOA, Iran’s research and development activities may drive the United States to reassess the value of the JCPOA, as the irreversible knowledge that Iran gains from these activities will continue to decrease the nonproliferation benefits of the accord.

After EU lead negotiator Enrique Mora visited Tehran in early May to encourage progress on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, said his government had introduced special initiatives and proposals and it was time for the United States to act.  (Photo: Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA)Iran’s initial violations of the JCPOA were carefully calibrated to pressure the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on the relief envisioned under the accord after the United States withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions. These early breaches, which began a year after Trump pulled out of the accord, consisted of activities that Tehran had undertaken before the JCPOA’s implementation—actions that could quickly be reversed and posed no new challenge to the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits. These actions included enriching to 5 percent uranium-235, slightly above the 3.67 percent limit established by the JCPOA but below the 20 percent Iran had produced before 2013. Iran also breached the stockpile cap of 300 kilograms of uranium enriched to 3.67 percent—a clear violation of the deal, but one easily rectified by shipping out or blending down excess stocks.

Iran’s breaches, however, have grown more serious and more difficult to reverse as Tehran has taken increasingly drastic steps in an attempt to increase its leverage and to respond to attacks against its nuclear facilities and assassinations of its scientists, acts which Israel has often claimed credit for.

For instance, after the November 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a nuclear scientist deeply involved with Iran’s pre-2003 organized nuclear weapons program, Iran passed a law requiring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to take certain steps to expand its nuclear program. While some of the required steps, such as resuming 20 percent enrichment, were activities Iran had undertaken before the JCPOA’s negotiation, most of the required actions broke new ground and resulted in the acquisition of irreversible knowledge. The law, for instance, required Iran to install and operate 1,000 IR-2 and IR-6 centrifuges, which are much more efficient models that Iran had little to no experience using for large-scale enrichment before the JCPOA’s negotiation. As a result, Tehran has gained knowledge that cannot be reversed about the production and operation of these more advanced machines.

The law also required Iran to begin work on a facility to produce uranium metal. While the IAEA has confirmed that Iran completed the installation of the equipment necessary for the first stage of metal production but is not operating it, the AEOI did begin laboratory experiments that resulted in small quantities of uranium metal. Iran claims this work is necessary to develop fuel for its reactors, but uranium metal is also directly relevant to nuclear weapons development. While Iran conducted uranium metal experiments as part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, it does not appear to have mastered the capability nor did it have such a facility when the JCPOA was implemented, as the deal prohibited uranium metal work for 15 years.

Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have raised particular concern about Iran’s uranium metal work and its potential impact on JCPOA restoration. In a June 7 statement, the three countries said that uranium metal “is a key step in the development of a nuclear weapon” and the “more Iran is advancing and accumulating knowledge with irreversible consequences, the more difficult it is to come back to the JCPOA.” The E3 warned that “it is essential that Iran does not resume these activities or commence any further work.”

Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 60 percent in response to an act of sabotage at its Natanz site also broke new ground. After testing several configurations for 60 percent production, Iran appears to have settled on a particular uranium enrichment process, suggesting that it is mastering this new enrichment level, which is dangerously close to weapons-grade levels (greater than 90 percent uranium-235).

To date, the Biden administration appears to assess that the knowledge Iran has gained from these new research activities can be managed under a restored JCPOA and the deal’s nonproliferation benefits of the accord remain strong.

However, given that Iran appears intent on continuing to build leverage, it is likely that Tehran’s research and development activities will expand over the coming months. But the reduced transparency and the undetectable breakout timeframe give Tehran little room to maneuver. There is an increasing likelihood that Iran’s quest for leverage will lead Tehran to take steps that render the JCPOA’s nonproliferation benefits beyond repair or, at worst, trigger a military response. Vague and contradictory statements that the Biden administration has made about its red lines for military action against Iran’s nuclear program and upcoming elections in Israel increase the risk of Iranian miscalculation.

For instance, some officials within the Raisi administration are pushing to begin enrichment to 90 percent, a move that the U.S. intelligence community warned that Iran will consider if it does not receive sanctions relief in its 2022 Worldwide Threat Assessment. While the Raisi administration may view this step as just another means of increasing its negotiating leverage vis-a-vis the United States, even a small-scale effort to produce 90 percent would result in new knowledge for Iran that would likely kill any prospect of restoring the accord.

Furthermore, given the immediacy of the risk posed by enriching to 90 percent, such a step would significantly increase the likelihood that the United States and/or Israel assess that Tehran intends to pursue nuclear weapons, in turn triggering the use of military force to prevent Iran from accumulating enough bomb-grade uranium material for a weapon.

There are other actions, short of enriching to 90 percent, that Iran could take which are less likely to prompt a military response but would jeopardize the nonproliferation value of a restored JCPOA. Experimenting with more efficient centrifuges and different cascade designs would further erode breakout under a restored JCPOA. Another such action might be using 20 percent or 60 percent enriched material as feed for centrifuges, even if Iran does not withdraw the enriched uranium product.

If Tehran does not show restraint and continues to pursue new capabilities, the Biden administration will have to take these advances into account when determining if restoring compliance with the JCPOA will still provide nonproliferation benefits that address U.S. security concerns and are equal to the sanctions relief Iran would receive under the deal. Washington and its JCPOA partners will also need to determine what steps Iran may need to take to mitigate the proliferation potential of these capabilities, prolonging negotiations to restore the accord and the risk of spoilers disrupting those efforts.

Bare Minimum of Monitoring

Iran’s reductions in monitoring and transparency further complicate efforts to assess the impact of Iran’s research and development activities, detect breakout, and maintain an accurate record of Iran’s nuclear activities—a history that will be necessary to reimplement the JCPOA.

Iran has announced it is accumulating uranium enriched by more advanced technology, including these IR-4 centrifuges.  (Photo: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran)The monitoring regime established by the JCPOA is the most intrusive ever negotiated. Iran has always been legally required as a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement (CSA) with the IAEA, which gives inspectors access to facilities where nuclear materials are present to ensure that Iran’s declared nuclear activities are peaceful and must continue to implement that agreement regardless of the JCPOA’s future. CSAs, however, have proven inadequate in preventing states from conducting illicit nuclear activities, underscoring the importance of the JCPOA’s additional monitoring provisions, particularly for a country like Iran that violated its legally binding NPT commitment not to pursue nuclear weapons in the past.

The JCPOA builds on the legally required CSA by requiring Iran to implement an additional protocol (AP) to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which gives IAEA inspectors access to more information about a country’s nuclear activities and to any facility that is part of the program. Under an AP, for instance, inspectors can access centrifuge production facilities, which are not included under a CSA because there is no nuclear material present. The JCPOA also requires continuous surveillance of key sites, real-time monitoring of enrichment levels, and daily access to enrichment facilities.

Furthermore, the Joint Commission, the body established to oversee the implementation of the JCPOA, can vote by a majority to require Tehran to allow the IAEA access to any site in Iran to investigate evidence of undeclared nuclear materials and activities within a set time frame (JCPOA, Annex I, Section Q). This is designed to prevent Iran from stalling IAEA investigations, as it has in the past.

As a result of Iran’s JCPOA breaches, only the CSA currently remains in place. After Iran announced it would stop implementing its AP and other JCPOA-specific monitoring measures in February 2021, Tehran and the agency reached an agreement whereby IAEA cameras would continue to collect data during the period of reduced agency access that would be handed over to inspectors if the JCPOA was restored. The data collected would allow the IAEA to reconstruct a history of Iran’s nuclear activities and maintain its continuity of knowledge about Tehran’s actions, which would provide a baseline for monitoring a restored JCPOA.

Iran, however, announced June 9 that it was disconnecting 27 of the IAEA’s cameras that were critical to maintaining continuity of knowledge. While Tehran does not appear to have destroyed the data collected to that point, the gap in the monitoring of even a few weeks will have significant consequences. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi described Iran’s decision as dealing a “fatal blow” to efforts to restore the JCPOA within 3-4 weeks. While that period has now passed, and the Biden administration assesses that continuity of knowledge can be restored after a longer period of reduced visibility, the gap will certainly cause significant challenges, both politically and from a verification perspective.

The lack of adequate international monitoring and transparency increases the risk that Iran could break out undetected or move equipment and materials for a covert program to an undeclared site. It would be time-consuming and difficult—if not impossible—for the IAEA to reconstruct history and definitively determine that Iran had not taken such steps if the JCPOA is restored.

As Germany, France, and the United Kingdom noted in a June 9 statement, Iran’s decision to remove the cameras “will only aggravate the situation and complicate our efforts to restore full implementation of the JCPOA.” The decision also casts “further doubt on Iran’s commitment to a successful outcome.”

Even if the IAEA can account for Iran’s activities, the gap will fuel speculation that Iran engaged in illicit actions during the period of reduced monitoring. Whether there is evidence to support this conclusion or not, it risks undermining the sustainability of JCPOA.

In addition to the challenges, this poses for quick detection of illicit activities and/or diversion, the reduction in monitoring will complicate efforts to restore the JCPOA and garner the necessary political support in the United States to sustain the accord.

In his June 9 news conference, Grossi raised concerns about being able to reestablish a baseline to accurately verify compliance with a restored JCPOA. When the JCPOA was first implemented, Iran had to provide the IAEA with certain access and information before receiving any sanctions relief. This allowed the IAEA to establish a baseline against which to verify Iran’s JCPOA commitments. A similar process would likely be included in a deal to restore the JCPOA.

If Iran delays or stalls on that process, or if the IAEA is unable to establish such a baseline, it could prove challenging to verify the deal and for the Biden administration to certify to Congress that the IAEA has the capacity to monitor the deal—an assessment that will have to be submitted within five days of an agreement to restore the deal being reached as required by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Depending on the sequence of actions that Iran must take, the United States may need to submit the verification assessment before the IAEA can determine if such a baseline can be reestablished and if Iran will provide the information necessary to do so. This could undermine support for the JCPOA in Congress before the agreement could be restored.

The JCPOA Remains the Best Option

If Iran’s advancing nuclear program is not prompting the Biden administration to act with greater urgency to close a deal to restore the JCPOA, the lack of viable alternative options for reducing Iran’s nuclear risk should.

The Biden administration is already previewing its approach for countering Iran if talks to restore the JCPOA should fail: increasing sanctions pressure and diplomatic isolation to push Iran back to negotiations; shoring up military defenses in the region; and threatening military action if necessary to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

This playbook worked for the United States in the past when the Iranian nuclear program was far less advanced and before the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA. The Obama administration spearheaded a campaign to shore up international support for UN and US sanctions, including from China and Russia, countries that are outspoken against sanctions overreach, a particularly unilateral measure which they describe as an infringement of sovereignty. The Obama administration paired this pressure campaign with credible offers for diplomatic negotiations that ultimately produced the JCPOA.

However, it is very unlikely that the Biden administration would be able to reconstitute the same level of support for sanctions that it did in the lead-up to the negotiations on the JCPOA in 2013.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions targeting Moscow have only reinforced opposition to these measures in Russia and China. The current global energy crisis, as well as the perception that the United States caused the current nuclear crisis with Iran by withdrawing from the deal without cause in May 2018, will make it more difficult to build global support for sanctions and likely give Tehran more willing partners in its attempts to evade sanctions. Even France raised the need to explore the possibility of using Iranian oil to stem rising prices and meet global demand in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine squeezing the energy market.

It is also extremely unlikely that the Security Council will take any action on Iran, even if the IAEA Board of Governors refers Iran to that body for failing to meet its safeguards obligations (the IAEA is investigating undeclared nuclear materials from the pre-2003 period) or for engaging in new, undeclared nuclear activities. Absent convincing evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, a Russian or Chinese veto is almost certain.

France or the United Kingdom could attempt to use the sanctions “snapback” mechanism in Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA, to force the reimposition of Security Council sanctions that were modified when the JCPOA was implemented in January 2016. But that move, which cannot be vetoed, will be more difficult after the Trump administration attempted snapback in September 2020 without any legal standing to do so. The Europeans may also be reluctant to take such as step, given that it would likely spark further divisions between the states party to the JCPOA.

Given the challenges of reconstituting international support for sanctions, it will be a long and arduous process for the United States and its partners to build enough pressure so that Iran determines negotiations and restraint are in its best interest. During that time, Iran will also have had the opportunity to continue expanding its nuclear program—which it can do much more quickly—giving Iran more leverage in future negotiations. Iran could use its new capabilities, such as higher-level enrichment and advanced centrifuge development, to bargain for more concessions in future talks. Having to take these capabilities into account in a future accord could result in the United States giving up more to reach an agreement as effective as the JCPOA.

While Iran’s short-term escalation dominance could give it an upper hand in any new negotiations, Tehran’s expanding nuclear program also increases the risk of the United States and/or Israel resorting to military force to reduce the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Israel’s ongoing efforts to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities and assassinate nuclear scientists suggest that kinetic action to try and roll back the program will continue. Biden, like his predecessors, has also made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, implying that Washington will use force, if necessary, to achieve that goal.

Iran’s ability to break out undetected and its apparent determination to continue upping the pressure on the United States by expanding its nuclear activities significantly increase the likelihood that Tehran miscalculates in expanding its nuclear program and crosses a U.S. and/or Israeli red line.

While a military strike may set back Iran’s nuclear program in the short term, it is far more likely to drive Tehran to further harden its nuclear facilities against an attack and expand its nuclear program, as it has in the past in response to acts of sabotage. An attack will also fuel the arguments of policymakers in Tehran that favor pursuing nuclear weapons and that withdrawing from the NPT and building a nuclear deterrent is the only way to thwart future attacks. Even if an attack is successful in the short term, the United States could, at worse, face a full-blown war with Iran and the prospect of Tehran openly pursuing nuclear weapons, or, at best, driving further nuclear advances that it will have to contend with in any future negotiations.

An unrestrained Iranian nuclear program could also lead to further proliferation challenges in the region that the United States is ill-equipped to address. Saudi Arabia has openly threatened to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran’s nuclear program is not limited. Riyadh has thus far refused to negotiate new safeguards with the IAEA, despite its intention to expand its civil nuclear program and the fact that its current IAEA monitoring regime is based on an outdated protocol deemed insufficient by the agency and foreswear developing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities in its nuclear cooperation negotiations with the United States. Satellite imagery also suggests that Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own ballistic missile production capabilities, which would give it the means to deliver nuclear weapons.

If Saudi Arabia follows through on its threats or attempts to build a nuclear hedging capacity that preserves its option to move quickly for a bomb in the future, the typical tools of statecraft that the United States relies on for countering proliferation will likely be inadequate. It will be more challenging to sanction Saudi Arabia, given its military relationship with the United States and its oil reserves, and to diplomatically isolate it.

If a restored JCPOA is no longer on the table, the best of this list of bad options would be for the United States and Iran to negotiate an interim deal after first agreeing to a set of de-escalatory steps to stabilize the current situation. Since negotiating even an interim deal would itself be a time-consuming, complex undertaking that could be threatened by spoilers, it would behoove each side to take voluntary steps to build time for diplomacy and avert the risk of war.

On the Iranian side, Tehran should consider steps that would increase transparency and give IAEA inspectors greater access to the country’s nuclear program. Greater transparency would provide more assurance that Tehran does not intend to pursue nuclear weapons and that moves in that direction would be quickly detected. Even if Iran continues to try and build pressure by further expanding its nuclear program or engaging in new nuclear activities, an increase in transparency and monitoring would reduce the proliferation risk that these activities pose. It would ideally prevent a precipitous move to use military force based on bad intelligence that was suggesting a dash to a bomb and provide a better baseline for implementing any future deal.

In return, the United States and its P4+1 partners could include limited sanctions relief that targets humanitarian sectors in Iran and/or unfreeze a limited amount of Iranian assets held abroad for those purposes. That could provide Iran with an infusion of cash to address the worsening economic crisis in the country.

Actions along these lines would allow both sides to retain their most significant leverage and demonstrate a commitment to a peaceful resolution and prevention of war. Stabilizing the current situation would also create time for a new diplomatic foray that could focus first on negotiating an interim deal that halts and rolls back Iran’s more proliferation sensitive activities, such as enrichment to 60 percent, freezes the development and installation of further advanced centrifuges, and prohibits new research activities. In return, Iran could receive commensurate sanctions relief.

Ideally, by reducing the immediacy of the proliferation risk and building confidence in the diplomatic process, an interim deal would create the time and space to negotiate a new agreement along the lines of the JCPOA that considers Iran’s nuclear advances and Tehran’s legitimate concerns about the performance of sanctions relief.

Diplomacy With Iran Worth a Political Price

While critics of the JCPOA may applaud Biden for walking away from the JCPOA rather than removing the IRGC from the foreign terrorist organization list, he will pay a far higher price for allowing the opportunity to restore intrusive monitoring and strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program slip by. If Biden cannot find the flexibility to remove the symbolic designation that has failed to reign in the IRGC’s destabilizing regional activities, his administration must put forward additional practical, realistic solutions to address the current impasse. If Biden loses this opportunity and does not move quickly to stabilize the current situation and build time for new negotiations, he risks going down in history as the president that allowed Iran to get to the brink of a bomb or the president that went to war to stop it.

Just as it is critical for the Biden administration to demonstrate creativity and flexibility, Iran must also show some flexibility and some restraint. Iran has hinted that it has relaxed its demands on the IRGC issue, but has failed to articulate clearly what it wants instead, and continues to put unrealistic demands on the table, such as a U.S. guarantee that Washington will honor an agreement post-Biden and the IAEA dropping its safeguards investigation into undeclared nuclear activities and materials from pre-2003. Tehran’s adamance in expanding its nuclear program and reducing transparency, despite the heightened proliferation risk, further jeopardizes the accord and increases the risk that Iran miscalculates, and tensions escalate to military action. Neither side wins if talks to restore the JCPOA collapse.

The JCPOA is a proven and effective strategy that verifiably blocks Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons. If fully implemented, it is the swiftest, most effective way to roll back Iran’s nuclear activities, put its program under a microscope, and provide Tehran with the sanctions relief necessary to revive its flagging economy. The United States and Iran must agree to return to talks and hammer out a path forward for restoring the JCPOA before it is too late.--KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

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Resumed talks between the United States and Iran over restoring compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) last month underscored the inflexibility of the U.S. and Iranian positions on issues extraneous to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

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A Turning Point on Nuclear Deterrence


July/August 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of possible use of nuclear weapons against any state that might interfere with Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine have reawakened the world to the dangers of nuclear war. The possibility of military conflict between Russian and NATO forces has significantly increased the risk of nuclear weapons use. Because Russian and U.S.-NATO military strategies reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first against non-nuclear threats, fighting could quickly go nuclear.

Photo Credit: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear WeaponsPutin’s threats violate foundational understandings designed to reduce the dangers of nuclear deterrence, including the 1973 Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, in which the United States and Russia pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the other party, against the allies of the other party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.”

As egregious, worrisome, and risky as Putin’s nuclear antics are, the reaction of the international community until recently has been far too mild. The U.S. response to Putin’s nuclear threats, as well as those of Western governments that also embrace nuclear deterrence ideologies and rely on the credible threat of nuclear use, has been particularly underwhelming.

At the outset of the Russian invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden, answering a question about whether U.S. citizens should be concerned with a nuclear war breaking out, said, "No." Then, in a May 31 essay in The New York Times, Biden referred to Russia’s “occasional nuclear rhetoric” as “dangerous and extremely irresponsible,” implying that some nuclear threats are more responsible.

Fortunately, a much needed, more forceful rejection of nuclear weapons and threats of use emerged from the first meeting of states-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) held in Vienna June 21–23. Citing “increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric,” the TPNW states-parties issued the Vienna Declaration, which condemns all threats to use nuclear weapons as violations of international law, including the UN Charter. The declaration demands “that all nuclear-armed states never use or threaten to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.”

The TPNW states-parties condemned “unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” Far from preserving peace and security, “nuclear weapons are used to coerce and intimidate; to facilitate aggression and inflame tensions. This highlights the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines, which are based and rely on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons and, hence, the risks of the destruction of countless lives, of societies, of nations, and of inflicting global catastrophic consequences,” they added.

The declaration underscores that, for the majority of states, outdated nuclear deterrence policies create unacceptable risks. The only way to eliminate the danger is to reinforce the norms against nuclear use and the threat of use and to accelerate stalled progress toward verifiably eliminating these weapons.

Nevertheless, NATO leaders insist that the alliance must double down on its dangerous nuclear deterrence posture to prevent a Russian attack on NATO member states. In reality, U.S. and NATO nuclear weapons have proven useless in preventing Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. At the same time, Russia’s brazen nuclear threats have failed to deter NATO efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons needed to repel the Russian onslaught.

Instead, Ukraine’s partners have responded with political, economic, and diplomatic means to help Ukraine defend its territory. The conflict has demonstrated that even for a state or alliance possessing a robust nuclear arsenal, such as NATO, conventional military capabilities are the key to deterring military attacks and to ensuring battlefield success.

The more NATO rhetoric emphasizes the value of nuclear deterrence and of possessing nuclear weapons, the more legitimacy it lends to Putin’s nuclear threats and to the mistaken, dangerous belief that nuclear weapons are necessary for self-defense.

The next global gathering concerning nuclear weapons will take place in August at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). All states must seek to rise above their differences and work together to reverse today’s dangerous nuclear trends.

Non-nuclear-weapon states can build on the TPNW meeting by encouraging wider support for the norms against nuclear weapons. Rather than simply criticize Russian nuclear threats as “irresponsible,” NPT states-parties should condemn unambiguously all threats of nuclear weapons use. They must unite in demanding that the nuclear-weapon states undertake specific actions to fulfill the NPT’s Article VI disarmament provisions. This should include an explicit call for the United States and Russia to begin negotiations on new disarmament arrangements and for all NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze their nuclear stockpiles and engage in disarmament negotiations before the next NPT review conference, in 2025.

Given the growing risk of nuclear war, the first meeting of TPNW states-parties and the NPT review conference must become a turning point away from dangerous nuclear policies and arms racing that threaten global nuclear catastrophe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of possible use of nuclear weapons against any state that might interfere with Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine have reawakened the world to the dangers of nuclear war.

NATO Strengthens Eastern Flank, Eyes Russia, China


July/August 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández

NATO leaders have approved a new strategic concept, announced major plans to strengthen the military force posture, and agreed to begin accepting two new members as the alliance continues to push back against an increasingly aggressive Russia and a rising China.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson (L) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid on June 28. The talks, which also included Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, appeared to resolve Turkey's objections over Finland and Sweden joining NATO. (Photo by Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)In a world where “pervasive instability, rising strategic competition and advancing authoritarianism challenge the alliance’s interests and values…[w]e will significantly strengthen our deterrence and defense posture to deny any potential adversary any possible opportunities for aggression,” they declared in the strategic concept, the blueprint of alliance goals and principles.

The NATO summit in Madrid on June 29–30 opened on a strong note after Finland, Sweden, and Turkey signed a trilateral memorandum clearing the way for the Nordic states to join the alliance. Turkey lifted its hold on the membership bids after 11th-hour talks on June 28. As a result, Turkey received assurances that Finland and Sweden would commit to preventing the activities of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has killed civilians in Turkey, and other terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, the United States signaled a new willingness to sell upgraded F-16 jet fighters to Turkey.

Guided by the strategic concept, the new force plans include deployment of a brigade-level military presence on NATO’s eastern flank and an increase in its high-readiness joint task force from 40,000 troops to 300,000 troops by 2023. The alliance also agreed to prioritize the integration of air and missile defenses in its deterrence and defense posture.

Although NATO members reaffirmed that arms control, disarmament, and meaningful reciprocal dialogue are imperative to Euro-Atlantic security, they also asserted a robust recommitment to NATO’s nuclear capabilities in order “to preserve the peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression.”

The main difference from the previous strategic concept, released more than a decade ago, appears to be an acknowledgement that NATO is operating in a radically different security environment, with Russia now identified as the most pressing challenge. “The Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace. [Russia] has violated the norms and principles that contributed to a stable and predictable security order,” the new strategic concept states.

By contrast, NATO members in the 2010 concept envisioned a true strategic partnership with Russia and viewed the NATO-Russia Council, established more than 20 years ago by the NATO-Russia Founding Act, as a crucial mechanism for dialogue and joint action.

By 2021 the tone was already changing as NATO deemed Russia a threat. “We face multifaceted threats, systemic competition from assertive and authoritarian powers,” NATO leaders said in a statement at the time. “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.”

The allies also first acknowledged that China’s growing influence presented a challenge. (See ACT, April 2021.) The new strategic concept takes that further and says China’s “malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target allies and harm alliance security.”

The new concept highlights numerous issues of strategic importance for the alliance defense and deterrence force posture, including air and missile defense capabilities. In NATO’s determination to “defend every inch of allied territory…we will ensure a substantial and persistent presence on land, at sea, and in the air, including through strengthened integrated air and missile defense,” the concept says. The move reflects NATO’s concerns about Russia’s indiscriminate use of missile systems in Ukraine. (See ACT, June 2022.) The concept also emphasizes the importance of new and emerging technologies. To this end, NATO leaders agreed to launch a $1 billion fund for emerging technologies.

Despite the shifts in force posture, NATO leaders reaffirmed the importance of arms control to a credible deterrence posture and reiterated their commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Nonetheless, the new concept does not provide a strategy for moving forward with nuclear arms control and disarmament and does not differ from NATO’s previous policy. The new concept states that the allies “will pursue all elements of strategic risk reduction, including promoting confidence building and predictability through dialogue.”

Effectively, the new security environment is accelerating existing NATO policies. When the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO withdrew nearly all forward-based troops from Eastern Europe. After Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea in 2014, the alliance developed an “enhanced forward presence” comprising four rotational multinational battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland as a trip wire to deter Russia. NATO also increased military exercises in the Black Sea. (See ACT, June 2022.)

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the alliance doubled the number of rotational multinational battlegroups; established four more battlegroups, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia; and placed more than 40,000 troops under direct NATO command. These troops are part of NATO’s Response Force, a multinational, multidomain force that can be deployed quickly. NATO also expanded its air police missions and military exercises.

At the summit, the alliance reinforced its military position in other ways. The multinational battlegroups established in 2016 on the alliance’s eastern flank will be enhanced up to brigade levels. After 2016, the battlegroups totaled about 3,000 troops. In June 2022, NATO said the approximate troop strength in all battlegroups, including in Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia was 9,641. NATO’s high-readiness joint task force, which NATO said had 4,000 troops in 2021 and 40,000 after Russia’s invasion, will be increased to 300,000 troops under a new force model.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced that these new deployments would include additional U.S. forces in Europe, including, but not limited to, a permanent headquarters in Poland for the U.S. Army Fifth Corps, enhanced rotational deployments in the Baltics, and an additional brigade in Romania underscoring continued U.S. leadership in supporting European security. “Earlier this year, we surged 20,000 additional U.S. forces to Europe to bolster our alliance in response to Russia’s aggressive move, bringing our force total in Europe to 100,000,” Biden said.

Russia’s reaction was swift, with media quoting President Vladimir Putin as saying, “We have nothing to worry about in terms of Finland and Sweden's membership in NATO. They want to join NATO—please. Only they should clearly imagine that there were no threats to them before, but if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in a mirror manner.”

Before the summit, analysts wondered if NATO would ditch its commitments under the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which stipulated that NATO has no intention, reason, or plan to deploy nuclear weapons, or nuclear storage sites, in the territories of states that joined NATO after the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Although the new strategic concept did not formally abrogate the act, NATO is looking at conventional options to strengthen deterrence beyond the limits implied in the act. The act’s “substantial combat forces pledge” states that NATO will not permanently deploy substantial conventional forces, assumed to mean more than one brigade, in new member states. Russia has accused NATO of violating the act with rotational deployments. At the summit, NATO did not announce a permanent force deployment in the Baltic states and likely will argue, in response to Russian accusations, that rotational forces do not violate the act. Possible contributions by Finland and Sweden are not included.

“Russia has walked away from the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and while that is unfortunate, it’s done, and we are certainly going to look at conventional deployments that would not be necessarily considered under the NATO-Russia Founding Act. But more importantly, I think we just don’t think it applies anymore to the world that we’re facing,” a high-ranking NATO official told Arms Control Today.

At the summit, the allies agreed on a comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine. “Over the longer term, we will help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era military equipment to modern NATO equipment and further strengthen its defense and security institutions,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

The leaders also recommitted themselves to the alliance’s long-standing open-door policy and formally invited Finland and Sweden to join. (See ACT, June 2022.) Next, the parliaments of NATO’s 30 member states must ratify Finland’s and Sweden’s accession protocols.

NATO approved a new strategic concept, announced plans to boost its military force, and began accepting
two new members as it pushed back against Russia and China.

States-Parties Meet on Nuclear Arms Ban Treaty


July/August 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández and Daryl G. Kimball

The first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has produced an ambitious 50-point action plan and several decisions designed to implement the 2017 agreement. It also adopted a political statement that aims, in part, to reinforce norms against nuclear weapons use and threat of use.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (on screen) speaks during First Meeting of States-Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in Vienna on June 21. The treaty, which bans nuclear weapons, has been ratified by 66 countries. Notable holdouts are the United States and other nuclear-weapon states.  (Photo by Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)“We will not rest until the last state has joined the treaty, the last warhead has been dismantled and destroyed, and nuclear weapons have been eliminated from this earth,” delegates said in a joint declaration issued at the close of the meeting.

“We stress that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances,” the declaration added.

The June 21–23 meeting in Vienna occurred at a moment of unprecedented post-Cold War instability as Russia wages war against Ukraine. To date, 86 states have signed and 66 states have ratified the treaty, which prohibits the possession, development, transfer, testing, use, or threat of use of nuclear weapons. The TPNW entered into force in January 2021.

The condemnation represents the strongest multilateral criticism of such nuclear threats since the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on March 2 condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s decision to increase the readiness of his nuclear forces. There have also been exchanges of nuclear threats between the United States and North Korea in 2017 and Pakistan’s reference to the possibility of nuclear war with India in 2019, according to a TPNW conference working paper. Most recently, Russia threatened to use nuclear weapons if NATO members intervene militarily in the war in Ukraine. (See ACT, April 2022.)

In a statement issued June 24 by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, the Russian government rejected the criticism. “There have never been any ‘nuclear threats’ from Russia and never are. The Russian approach to this issue is based solely on the logic of deterrence.”

Calling NATO actions to be “dangerously balancing on the verge of a direct armed conflict with our country,” she argued that “the logic of deterrence remains an effective way to prevent a nuclear collision and large-scale wars.”

Several states-parties at the Vienna meeting expressed deep concerns about the risks posed by the dangerous nuclear deterrence policies espoused by Russia and the eight other nuclear-armed states and their allies. “The logic that nuclear deterrence provides security is a fundamental error because deterrence requires credibility, meaning the readiness to actually use these weapons. This is nothing less than a massive nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over the head of all of us, of all of humanity. We must take and we have taken a different path,” declared Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg at the beginning of the conference.

Many TPNW delegations joined Schallenberg in expressing concern about the risks posed by nuclear deterrence policies of the nine nuclear-armed states and their allies.

Led by conference president Alexander Kmentt, the Austrian director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation, states-parties made several decisions that will shape the treaty’s future. These include implementing treaty obligations to assist people affected by nuclear weapons use and nuclear test explosions and designating a competent international authority to monitor treaty implementation and compliance. In addition, the conference agreed on steps to promote further TPNW ratifications and to establish a scientific advisory group on the technical aspects of the treaty, including the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons and their use.

The conference statement also expressed deep concern with the fact that none of the nuclear-armed states are taking serious steps to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons. “Instead, all nuclear-armed [states] are spending vast sums to modernize, upgrade, or expand their nuclear arsenals and placing a greater emphasis and increasing the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines,” the declaration said.

According to a 2022 report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, nuclear arsenals are expected to grow in the coming decade, despite a marginal decrease in the number of nuclear warheads in 2021. The two largest nuclear weapons possessors, Russia and the United States, have suspended discussions on a follow-on arms control agreement to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will expire in 2026.

States-parties also agreed on steps relating to their obligations under treaty articles VI and VII to address the harm from the use and testing of nuclear weapons, including the establishment of an international trust fund for assisting health issues in affected states and for environmental remediation.

They pledged to pursue high-level engagement with states that have not joined the treaty, which was negotiated by more than 120 countries but not the nuclear-armed states.

In 2021, NATO members declared their opposition to the treaty in the Brussels summit communiqué, saying, “We reiterate our opposition to the [TPNW] which is inconsistent with the alliance’s nuclear deterrence policy, is at odds with the existing non-proliferation and disarmament architecture, risks undermining the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)], and does not take into account the current security environment.”

Yet, NATO member states and close U.S. allies such as Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway attended the first meeting of states-parties as observers.

Germany and Norway delivered statements that reiterated NATO’s declaratory policy regarding the treaty. “As a member to NATO, and as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance, and confronted with an openly aggressive Russia, which has not only invaded Ukraine but is threatening the rules-based international order and peace in Europe, Germany cannot accede to the TPNW, which would collide with our membership in NATO including nuclear deterrence,” Rüdiger Bohn, the German deputy commissioner for arms control and disarmament and head of the German delegation, told the conference.

But he pledged that Germany would seek to engage “in constructive dialogue and exploring opportunities for practical cooperation” with TPNW states.

Jørn Osmundsen, Norwegian special envoy for disarmament affairs, also laid down caveats. “Norway is attending this conference as an observer,” he stressed. “This is not a step towards signing the TPNW, which would be incompatible with our NATO obligations. Norway stands fully behind NATO’s nuclear posture.”

The TPNW conference reaffirmed that the treaty is designed to complement and strengthen the existing nonproliferation and disarmament regime. “In the absence of an enabling legally binding framework and the slow pace of implementation of agreed disarmament commitments, the TPNW’s negotiation and adoption is an effort by nonnuclear-weapon states to make progress towards the full implementation of Article VI of the NPT…[which is] an obligation for all NPT states-parties,” according to a conference working paper developed by Ireland and Thailand in advance of the meeting of states-parties.

States-parties agreed to pursue further discussions about establishing or designating a competent international authority to monitor and verify the disarmament process. They acknowledged the need to elaborate on what procedure and timeline should follow in case a state wishes to disarm and remove nuclear weapons from its territory. (See ACT, May 2021.)

Prior to the TPNW meeting, Austria hosted a fourth conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons with the goal of bringing together different actors from civil society, academia, and survivors to discuss these issues. Similar conferences in Oslo (March 2013); Nayarit, Mexico (February 2014); and Vienna (December 2014) helped propel non-nuclear-weapon states to launch the negotiations that produced the TPNW in 2017.

The TPNW meeting named Juan Ramón de la Fuente, Mexico’s UN ambassador, to serve as president of the second TPNW meeting of states-parties, which will be held in New York on November 27–December 1, 2023.

The first meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons declared, “We will not rest until…the last warhead has been…destroyed.”

Deadline Set for Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Iran’s retaliation for a censure from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors put a ticking clock on efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s decision to disconnect 27 IAEA cameras led the agency’s Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi to declare that the gap in monitoring will be a “fatal blow” to efforts to restore the nuclear deal within 3-4 weeks. At that point, he said that the IAEA’s ability to maintain its continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities will be compromised, which impacts...

Experts Call on Biden to Redouble Diplomacy to Restore 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal

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IAEA Director-General Warns “Fatal Blow” to Agreement Could Be 3 to 4 Weeks Away

For Immediate Release: June 10, 2022

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—Experts from the Arms Control Association strongly urge President Joseph Biden to immediately redouble efforts to break the stalemate on talks to restore compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi warned that efforts to restore the JCPOA will face a “fatal blow” within three to four weeks, after Iran announced June 9 that it was disconnecting certain cameras monitoring key nuclear facilities.

“President Biden clearly supports a restoration of mutual compliance with the JCPOA as the best way to roll back Iran’s potential to produce bomb-grade nuclear material and maintain more stringent International Atomic Energy Agency oversight of Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities,” noted Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “And it is.”

“Unfortunately, the Biden administration has not treated the growing crisis, which was triggered by former President Trump’s irresponsible withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, with the necessary degree of urgency it deserves,” he charged. “In the wake of new disturbing developments, however, the White House must take immediate action.”

This week, Iran disconnected 27 cameras monitoring key nuclear facilities in retaliation for an IAEA Board of Governors resolution urging Iran to cooperate with the agency on its investigation of undeclared nuclear materials from the pre-2003 nuclear weapons program. The IAEA risks losing its continuity of knowledge about Iran’s nuclear activities—which is necessary for restoring the JCPOA—if the cameras remain disconnected for more than 3-4 weeks, Grossi warned June 9.

“A deal to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is on the table and could be quickly implemented—if the United States and Iran move away from hardline positions on the non-nuclear issue blocking agreement: whether and under what conditions to lift a U.S. foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy.

“It is past time for both sides to resolve that impasse and finally deliver on what is in the interest of all sides: an agreement to restore compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal,” she said.

“The Biden Administration continues to argue that it is up to Iran to accept the deal or negotiate over the IRGC designation. But it is a failure of leadership on the part of the White House not to announce it will immediately intensify diplomatic efforts to break the impasse on the issue. And blaming Iran, however emotionally or politically satisfying that may seem to be, doesn’t avert the imminent nuclear crisis and it doesn’t advance U.S. national security interests” Kimball said.

"Biden will pay a small political cost for lifting sanctions on the IRGC, but it pales in comparison to the enormous national and international security threat of a nuclear-armed Iran," Davenport said.

“Currently, Iran could produce enough nuclear material for a bomb in less than 10 days—a window so short Tehran’s actions may not be detected by international inspectors. Restoring the JCPOA’s limits on Iran’s nuclear program will significantly increase that margin to about six months, which provides the international community with enough time to take effective action to counter any Iranian move toward a nuclear weapon,” Davenport said. 

“If President Biden fails to promptly conclude negotiations with Iran to restore the JCPOA, it would perpetuate the failed strategy pursued by the Trump administration and allow Iran to further expand its nuclear program and defy its safeguards obligations with the IAEA. Biden risks going down in history as the president that allowed Iran to reach the brink of a nuclear bomb. It is past time the United States doubled down on creative proposals to break the impasse,” she warned. 

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Experts from the Arms Control Association are calling on President Biden to immediately redouble stalled diplomatic efforts to restore compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which is facing what the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director-General says could be a “fatal blow” within three to four weeks.

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No Ordinary NPT Review Conference

June 2022
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, waged under the threat of nuclear weapons use, has delivered a shocking reminder of an existential danger that did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. Putin’s aggression increases the potential for a NATO-Russian conflict that could quickly escalate, lead to the use of nuclear weapons, and spiral into a global nuclear catastrophe. Although leaders in Washington and Moscow understand that a nuclear war cannot be won, their respective nuclear deterrence policies and the ongoing fighting make it more likely that a nuclear war could be fought.

United Nations Headquarters. (UN Photo/Joao Araujo Pinto)Putin’s decision to discard diplomacy and invade Ukraine puts the 77-year taboo against nuclear weapons use to the test. It also has derailed the strategic stability and arms control dialogue between Washington and Moscow, made a mockery of the repeated security assurances that nuclear-armed states will not attack non-nuclear states, and created a major challenge for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

But the international community’s pushback against Russia’s nuclear bullying has been far too tepid.

The next global debate about nuclear weapons will take place in August at the 10th NPT Review Conference. In the face of the growing danger of nuclear war, this is a critical opportunity for the treaty’s 191 states-parties to reinforce the norms against nuclear weapons, to strongly condemn any threat of nuclear weapons use, and to intensify the pressure for action to fulfill the treaty’s Article VI provision “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

Responsible nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states cannot afford simply to muddle through the month-long meeting. Russia’s violent assault on Ukraine is a clarion call for responsible NPT states to rally around a meaningful nuclear risk and disarmament action plan. Even if a consensus final document is not attainable due to tensions over the war, a supermajority of states should seek to chart the path forward through a joint declaration.

Putin’s war has derailed for now U.S.-Russian talks on further cuts in their bloated strategic arsenals and new agreements to limit short- and intermediate-range nuclear weapons, but the United States and Russia, as well as other NPT states-parties, are still bound by their disarmament obligations. The last remaining U.S.-Russian arms reduction agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), expires in early 2026. Without commonsense arms control guardrails, the dangers of unconstrained global nuclear arms racing will only grow.

U.S. President Joe Biden should direct his team to embrace a bold, specific NPT action plan, which, more than any rhetoric from U.S. diplomats, would show that his administration wants to be on the right side of history rather than resisting the overdue action that is needed to reduce nuclear dangers.

Other states cannot afford to wait for the United States to lead or allow the other NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, and the United Kingdom) to escape accountability. Robust, constructive leadership from other NPT states-parties, such as Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, South Africa, and Sweden, will be needed. Leaders of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and the Non-Aligned Movement also have crucial roles to play. Their previous statements and working papers suggest these states share common positions that would allow them to advance a common nuclear risk and disarmament action agenda that:

  • calls on the United States and Russia to resume their strategic stability dialogue, begin negotiations on New START follow-on agreements, and issue unilateral reciprocal commitments to respect the central limits of New START after 2026;
  • calls on all NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze their nuclear stockpiles and engage in disarmament negotiations;
  • endorses a moratorium on intermediate-range nuclear weapons and the deployment of new short-range nuclear weapons;
  • calls for all states to respect the de facto global moratorium on nuclear testing and to negotiate on-site confidence-building measures pending the entry into force of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;
  • reaffirms that any use of nuclear weapons would produce catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” nor should any state threaten the use of nuclear weapons;
  • urges all states to phase out “launch under attack” postures and refrain from offensive cyberattacks on nuclear command, control, and communication systems; and
  • calls for the start of negotiations on legally binding security guarantees to prevent unprovoked attacks by nuclear-weapon states against non-nuclear-weapon states.

At this time of heightened nuclear danger, responsible NPT states must act with urgency to reinforce norms against nuclear weapons, push back against Russia’s nuclear bullying, and strengthen their commitment to reverse the arms race, avoid nuclear war, and eliminate nuclear weapons.

At this time of heightened nuclear danger, responsible NPT states must act with urgency to reinforce norms against nuclear weapons, push back against Russia’s nuclear bullying, and strengthen their commitment to reverse the arms race, avoid nuclear war, and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Finland, Sweden Apply to Join NATO


June 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández

Finland and Sweden have applied to join NATO, abandoning their long-standing military neutrality in the face of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. The May 18 move signals an expected expansion of the alliance in ways that would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. It is widely seen as a political defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who for years worked hard to tear the alliance apart and insisted that no new members be added.

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) moved quickly to host Finnish President Sauli Niinisto (L) and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at the White House on May 19 in support of a decision by the two Nordic countries to apply for NATO membership. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)Sweden declared its intentions to seek NATO membership on May 15, shortly after Finland confirmed its move. Three days later, the countries filed formal applications at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

All of NATO’s 30 members must approve the new allies, a process that could take up to a year. In a surprise development, Hungary and Turkey, two NATO countries ruled by authoritarians, raised objections to the membership applications in what diplomatic sources described as an apparent attempt to gain political concessions driven by their national interests and desire to play to domestic audiences.

U.S. and European officials expressed confidence that any differences can be worked out. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on May 15 that the membership process could be very quick, according to media reports, and U.S. officials acted as if it were a done deal. But the Hungarian and Turkish obstructions cast a cloud over the historic Nordic shift.

U.S. President Joe Biden moved to speed the process and reinforce a sense of acceptance by inviting Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson to the White House on May 19. In a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, he said he was submitting immediately to the Senate the treaty language needed to make the two countries the newest members of the alliance.

“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “They’re strong, strong democracies, and a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”

Biden warned Russia that the United States would “deter and confront any aggression while Finland and Sweden are in this accession process” before they formally are accepted into an alliance whose core commitment is that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” Although Biden’s pledge is far short of a treaty, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on May 18 that the United States “will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden during this process.”

At the White House, Andersson said that “Russia’s full-scale aggression against a sovereign and democratic neighbor…was a watershed moment for Sweden, and my government has come to the conclusion that the security of the Swedish people will be best protected within the NATO alliance.”

As Finland and Sweden began taking formal steps to join NATO, Swedish Army troops, here camouflaging an armoured vehicle, participated in military exercises on the Swedish island of Gotland in May. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images) Finland and Sweden were nonaligned during the Cold War and maintained formal military neutrality even as their armed forces contributed to Western operations. Both countries are considered to be NATO’s closest geopolitical partners, possessing vibrant democracies, strong economies, and competent militaries. Since Russia invaded Ukraine and upended European stability, Finland and Sweden have become increasingly unsettled by the Russian threat and experienced a stunning surge in support among their politicians and publics to seek security in the alliance.

As late as March 8, two weeks after the invasion began, Andersson, Sweden’s Social Democratic leader, said that her party was opposed to joining NATO. Sweden consulted closely during the decision-making process with Finland, which led the way on the NATO issue.

“Military nonalignment has served Sweden well, but our conclusion is that it will not serve us equally well in the future,” Andersson told a press conference on May 15 in Stockholm in announcing her country’s NATO decision. “This is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Turkey’s objection stems from opposition to Sweden’s and, to a lesser extent, Finland’s perceived support for the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and an armed group in Syria that Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. Ankara’s conflict with the PKK, a Turkish separatist group, has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.

Putin has long opposed NATO and before the invasion had demanded that the alliance cease adding new members.

Russia has responded to the Finnish and Swedish decisions by threatening retaliation, including unspecified “military-technical measures,” Reuters reported. Yet, Niniisto spoke to Putin on May 14 and said later that their conversation was measured and did not contain any threats. “He confirmed that he thinks [the decision to join NATO is] a mistake. We are not threatening you. Altogether, the discussion was very, could I say, calm and cool,” Niinisto said in an interview with CNN. The Kremlin described the exchange as frank and said the change of course in foreign policy could negatively affect Finnish-Russian relations.

On May 16, Putin said in his speech to the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit that the fact of Finland and Sweden becoming NATO members would not in itself be a direct threat to Russia, but the expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure to these countries would certainly provoke a response. Previously, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told Kommersant that “the next expansion of NATO does not make our continent more stable and secure” and will require that Russia undertake a “special analysis and development of the necessary measures in order to balance the situation and ensure our security.”

Russia’s war on Ukraine has driven the two Nordic countries to abandon their military neutrality.

War in Ukraine Driving NATO Revamp


June 2022
By Gabriela Rosa Hernández

As the Russian war against Ukraine grinds on, the conflict is propelling a fundamental revamp of the U.S. and NATO military arsenals, as well as an unprecedented buildup of Ukraine’s war-fighting capacity. If the current trend continues, the result is likely to be a collection of much stronger, more modern Western militaries arrayed along the border with Russia, just as that country’s own military underperforms in Ukraine, experts and alliance officials say.

General Pierre Schill (R), chief of staff of the French Army, visits French troops deployed with NATO in Cincu, Romania in May 2022. (Photo by Didier Lauras/AFP via Getty Images)The United States and its allies have spent billions of dollars arming Ukraine since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. As Russia struggles to maintain control of the fight in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, it has continued to fire all kinds of missiles targeting key weapons facilities and industrial bases. On May 2, the U.S. Defense Department reported observing more than 2,125 Russian missile launches since the beginning of the invasion. While the barrage continues, the allies are not only learning valuable lessons about how these conventional missile systems are used and performing, but also taking steps to upgrade their own military equipment as they donate older models to Ukraine.

As one example, the allies have shifted to training Ukrainians to use Western military equipment as Ukrainian stockpiles of vintage Soviet-era systems have become depleted, according to PBS. Because of this, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law on May 21 a $40 billion assistance package for Ukraine, bringing total U.S. assistance to roughly $54 billion.

The new package, in part, would reimburse the Defense Department for training and military education provided to Ukraine and to allies who aided Ukraine at the behest of the United States. This is in addition to weapons, logistic and radar system support, and intelligence provided directly to the Ukrainian military. The German Defense Ministry announced in May that it is training Ukrainians on using advanced self-propelled howitzers donated by Germany and the Netherlands, while Canada disclosed plans to train Ukrainians to use heavy artillery.

These packages are not only helping Ukraine modernize its force with NATO military equipment, but also allowing NATO European allies to replace their own Soviet-era arms stocks as they donate them to Ukraine. For instance, Biden announced in March that the United States would replace Slovakia’s Soviet-era S-300 air defense system with a U.S. Patriot system after Slovakia donated the S-300 system to Ukraine. In April, Poland signed a $4 billion deal to buy Abrams tanks from the United States. Defense News reported that the procurement would allow Poland to phase out its Soviet T-72 and PT-91 tanks with a new tracked vehicle platform, part of a broad U.S. effort to transition allies from dependence on Russian military equipment through the European Recapitalization Incentive Program. Under specific conditions, the program allows the U.S. State Department to allocate funds from the Foreign Military Financing program to specific countries to purchase U.S. defense articles, training, and services for their defense needs and thus reduce military dependence on Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated this trend. As Poland donated a set of T-72 tanks to Ukraine, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was considering donating Challenger II battle tanks to fill Poland’s defense gap. Although this transfer has not been confirmed directly, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on April 26 that Poland’s gap had been filled. He referred to U.S. and UK weapons provided to Poland since the beginning of the war. In the new $40 billion U.S. assistance package, about $4 billion is aimed at paying for European command operations and at helping NATO’s eastern flank countries, including with the deployment of another U.S. Patriot missile system. In late May, Poland said it would seek six more U.S. Patriot batteries and 500 HIMARS M142 launchers, a U.S. long range artillery rocket system.

Russia’s aggression has also propelled NATO to expedite plans to beef up the alliance’s conventional force posture. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the allies agreed in 2016 to establish a forward presence on NATO’s eastern front. By 2017, NATO established an “enhanced forward presence” composed of four rotating multinational battle groups, averaging about 1,000 troops each, in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. In the Black Sea, NATO developed a “tailored forward presence,” which focused on exercises and training opportunities overseen by its headquarters in Romania.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ACT that there were plans to increase further the troop presence on the alliance’s eastern front, but did not provide a timeline. Since the war began, NATO, citing the need for deterrence, has doubled its rotating multinational battle groups, establishing new groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. Also, battle groups in the Baltic states and Poland have significantly increased from about 5,000 troops to 18,200, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Reservists from the 2nd Estonian Infantry Brigade take part in maneuvers during a NATO exercise on the Estonian-Latvian border on May 25 in Voru, Estonia. Fifteen thousand troops from 14 countries are participating in one of the largest ever military exercises in the Baltics as NATO members funnel weapons and other assistance to Ukraine to beat back a Russian invasion. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Overall, more than 40,000 troops are now under direct NATO command on the alliance’s eastern front. In addition, The Washington Post reported in early April that the Pentagon had increased the number of U.S. military personnel in Europe from 60,000 to more than 100,000 since February 2022. The Post, quoting an anonymous senior defense official, also reported that there will be a permanent force posture change in Europe, including troops from other NATO member states and possibly including a greater U.S. presence. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated on April 5, “I believe a lot of our allies, especially those such as the Baltics or Poland or Romania…are very willing to establish permanent bases. They will build them and pay for them.”

Meanwhile, the alliance is keeping close track of Russian tactics. Russia claims it has used a variety of missiles to strike Ukraine, including expensive Kalibr cruise missiles, high-precision Oniks missiles, the Iskander missile system, and a dozen hypersonic missiles. Russia has destroyed or badly damaged a Ukrainian anti-ship missile facility near Kyiv, the Malyshev tank factory in Kharkiv, and heavy industrial complexes in the cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv, a Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy. In late May, The Washington Post reported that Russia has also hit fuel and military supply depots, power stations, transportation infrastructure, and training centers in western Ukraine with its long-range precision-guided capabilities.

In numerous regional military exercises, the use of these systems in Europe was associated with deterrence, but now states will pay attention to the battlefield capability, use, and military units responsible for these systems when reflecting on their own force postures in Europe. These weapons “will no longer be perceived as a means of deterring a potential enemy, but as a weapon for real combat,” political scientist Pyotr Topychkanov wrote in Forbes.

One early indicator is the announcement by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka that Russia was interested in helping his country produce missiles such as the Iskander. In addition, Lukashenka recently said that Belarus received S-400 air defense systems from Russia.

The conflict is propelling big changes in U.S. and NATO arsenals as well as an unprecedented surge in Ukraine’s warfighting capacity.

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